Can-Am Ball

On the 40th birthday of the biggest big-bangers ever, Gordon Kirby joins the party while Pete Lyons gets to grips with a monster from the past

By all accounts, Road America’s annual mid-summer Brian Redman weekend – now formally known as the Kohler International Challenge with Brian Redman – has established itself as one of America’s leading historic racing weekends. Historic racing is booming in America, and this year no fewer than 490 cars were entered, in 10 divisions from historic F1 to production sedans, for the races at Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin’s beautiful kettle moraine country. The variety and selection of cars from the fifties through to today was just about as rich and varied as you can imagine.

There was also a concours sponsored by Road & Track in the center of the village of Elkhart Lake providing everyone the opportunity to hoist a few at Siebkens Hotel bar, the longtime primary watering hole for Road America drivers, teams and patrons. Road America and nearby Elkhart Lake exude a rustic, folksy Midwestern charm, in contrast to the smarter Monterey Historics weekend at Laguna Seca
and the surrounding Monterey peninsula in late August.

But as a racing event, Road America is every bit Laguna’s match, maybe better.

This year’s Brian Redman weekend in Elkhart Lake also celebrated the 40th anniversary of CanAm’s creation in 1966. Forty-eight cars were entered with 40 taking the green flag for Sunday’s eight-lap feature race. There were M6 and M8 McLarens galore, plenty of Lola T70s, a few McKees, a couple of Genies, one each of Matich and Burnett, as well as Juan Gonzalez’s well-presented Shadow DN4, Andy Boone’s McLeagle and Tom Mittler’s Honker. Unfortunately, there were no Chaparrals or Porsche 917/10s or 30s, although Joe Buzetta ran his Porsche 908 spyder.

My personal pick for best Can-Am car in show was Harold Higgins’ superb McLaren M6-Ford ‘429er’ which was on display, but didn’t run. Built in 1969 by the Agapiou brothers for Mario Andretti to try to beat the factory McLarens, the car is much more pristine today than when Mario drove it. “It’s been a 15-year restoration project,” Higgins said proudly.

The Can-Am portion of the weekend was organised by Victory Lane magazine publisher Dan Davis and his right-hand woman Pam Shatraw, who saw to it that a bunch of McLaren family members were flown in from New Zealand. They also made the very fitting choice of 1972 Can-Am champion George Follmer as the race weekend’s Grand Marshal. Follmer was one of America’s top drivers in an era when the USA produced many racing greats. As well as winning the ’72 Can-Am title in Roger Penske’s L&M Porsche 917/10, Follmer also won the 1972 and ’76 TransAm championships, and ran most of 1973 F1 world championship in a UOP Shadow.

Follmer finished sixth in his F1 debut in the South African GP, then finished third in Spain in his next F1 race. But there were few finishes or results thereafter and both he and team-mate Jackie Oliver were dropped at end of the year by team boss Don Nichols. Follmer continued to race in Can-Am while he was racing in F1 in 1973, driving Bobby Rinzler’s ex-Penske Porsche 917/10. He finished second to Mark Donohue’s factory Penske 917/30 in the championship. For 1974, Follmer and Jackie Oliver concentrated on the all-conquering Shadow Can-Am team for what turned out to be the final year of the series.

For me, the weekend’s main race brought back great memories, because I covered the last two years of Can-Am, 1973 and ’74, the first two of my 33 years as Autosport’s American editor. It was a rare pleasure to see so many old faces I hadn’t seen in years and to talk about the great days of Can-Am with guys like Follmer.

The unlimited nature of Can-Am was the making of the series. It spawned plenty of spectacular cars from the original Lola T70s and McLaren M6s, through the tiny ‘rollerskate’ Shadow, to the Chaparrals, McLaren M8s and M20, and turbocharged Porsche 917/10 and 917/30.

“The Can-Am rule book really was about a three-page book,” Follmer said. “There were a lot of pages that didn’t really apply. When it got right down to it, the car had to have doors and a windshield and that was pretty much it. So engineering-wise, a lot of stuff happened in Can-Am. It was interesting to the drivers, the teams, the fans and the press, too. Jim Hall came along with the Chaparrals, of course, and Hall did some great things with those cars. He really brought on wings and downforce and his torque converter automatic transmission.

“A lot of engineering ingenuity was applied to Can-Am. The series was unique that way, and that was probably one of the reasons why it was so successful and so popular with the public. There were some real differences between car A, car B and car C.”

Many people look back fondly on those years and say it was the height of the sport, both for the rate of technical development and its popularity at the gate. “Those cars were fast and explosive,” says Follmer. “They made a lot of horsepower and the effects of all that power and torque meant the maintenance on the cars was very high. Often from one day to the next required virtually a total rebuild from Friday to Saturday and from Saturday to Sunday, not just the engines, but the whole car.

“We ran those cars non-stop without pitstops for 200 miles and we started the races with eighty or ninety gallons of fuel on board. That’s a lot of weight which puts a lot of additional stress in the car, and because we were so busy trying to find speed out of them and maintain them we never ran them with a full load of fuel until the race. So when you went into the first turn in the race you really had no idea how your car was going to react. It made a lot of work for the driver, mentally and physically.”

Follmer’s fondest memory of Can-Am and his career as a whole is when he was asked by Roger Penske in July of 1972 to step into his new Porsche 917/10K to replace Mark Donohue, who had been injured in a crash while practicing for the second Can-Am race of the year, at Road Atlanta. Follmer had never seen the car or the racetrack before arriving at Penske’s request, but he was able to win the race, leading every lap after Denny Hulme crashed while trying to stay with Follmer’s faster Porsche.

“We were running with 1100 horsepower, and there was more if we wanted it,” said Follmer. “As the year went on, Denny Hulme and Peter Revson in the McLarens were struggling to keep up with us. They were doing a really good job, but they couldn’t match the horsepower we had. They had to keep building bigger engines and that made the engines unreliable and also emphasized the weak points in the chassis. Basically, we out-horsepowered them.”

Donohue returned to action later in the season, making a two-car team, but for ’73 Penske ran a lone 917/30KL for Donohue while Follmer drove the previous year’s 917/10 for Bobby Rinzler’s team. “The 917/10K was a very short-wheelbase car and it was very twitchy,” Follmer observed. “You kind of had to dance it through a corner. Both Mark and I told them we thought they had to make a longer-wheelbase car; Mark had the factory’s attention because he was an engineer, so they made the 917/30 seven inches longer and it went through the corners faster.

“It was also more aerodynamic, a much cleaner car with better straightaway speed and better corner speed. It was significantly faster than the car that he had won with the year before, and which I drove in ’73. I could keep him behind me if I could get in front of him on a tight track, but I couldn’t do it on most tracks. He was much faster and I knew enough about the car to know it would be a lot
faster than my car.”

Driving the 917/30 at Road America in 1973, Donohue broke the track record by eight seconds, becoming the first man to lap the 4-mile track in less than two minutes. Donohue’s standard stood for 12 years before Mario Andretti broke it in a Newman/Haas Lola Indy car. At the end of 1973, the SCCA banned turbos, thereby outlawing the Porsches. Follmer moved from the Shadow F1 team to the Shadow Can-Am team for ’74, partnering Jackie Oliver in a pair of sleek, tidy DN4s designed by Tony Southgate.

“The ’74 Shadow developed phenomenal horsepower and it handled really well,” Follmer recalled. “It was actually faster than the Porsche. The DN4 was a really nice car to drive. It had very good manners. It had power and it got it to the ground and it stopped and had good cornering speed – higher cornering speed than we had with the Porsche – and we did go faster in ’74 with a normally aspirated Chevy V8 than we did with the turbo 917.”

At Road America’s Can-Am celebration this summer the most impressive driver among the big field of current Can-Am drivers was Dave Handy. Driving a 1968 McLaren M6B powered by a small-block Chevy, Handy was able to outpace most of the newer cars with bigger engines at Road America. Handy, 47, has raced vintage cars for 25 years. His operation, Sasco Sports, is based at Virginia International Raceway, and Handy bought his M6B back in 1977. “I love racing this car,” he said.

The last Can-Am race took place at Road America on August 25, 1974. The season-closer was planned for Riverside two months later, but at an SCCA promoter’s meeting the day after the race at Road America a vote was taken to cancel the Riverside race and kill the series.

“Can-Am was already starting to lose its stature, which was unfortunate, but that’s the way things go in this business,” Follmer remarked. “The ground had been laid for Can-Am’s demise. The crowds were down and we didn’t have the media following we had in the past. I guess we all knew the end was coming, and probably a lot of us wanted to recognise it because it had been a big part of our lives. A lot of good race drivers were developed in Can-Am – Mark Donohue, Peter Revson, Denny and Bruce, Jim Hall. Can-Am brought a good calibre of competition all the way through its short history.

“Whenever you can attract high-calibre teams and drivers to any series you raise the bar and you make everybody else better because they’re going to have to compete. Can-Am was that type of a series with plenty of development, better cars and increased speeds. Everybody responded to it, so to know that it was going to end was a sad day.”

Neither Follmer nor Oliver finished history’s final Can-Am race. Follmer dropped out half-way round the first lap with a broken driveshaft while Oliver led easily for most of the race before his engine blew, handing victory to Scooter Patrick’s McLaren M20, run by Herb Kaplan’s US Racing team. For those of us who were at Road America that day 32 years ago there was a certain poignancy in Follmer’s words at the same track this year. It was the end of a truly grand era in motor racing history.

Top five races

Nine years, 71 events, more than 100 different vehicle designs, championship-winning drivers drawn from F1, Indy, USRRC, Trans-Am, F5000… But the editor wants me to narrow the glory days of the old Can-Am down to Top 5s. Piece of cake.

1. St. Jovite 1966. The first-ever Can-Am was in many ways the best-ever, a relentless Surtees-McLaren battle enlivened by Chris Amon. At the time, we thought they’d all be like that.

2. Riverside 1967. McLaren’s team was dominant most of that year, but here Hall put up such a fight that Bruce exclaimed, “The other chaps are catching up!”

3. Mosport 1970. Bruce had been killed, Denny’s hands were burned, but Dan Gurney came to McLaren and just barely staved off a stirring attack by Jackie Oliver.

4. Mid-Ohio 1974. Almost the dying Can-Am’s last gasp, but Brian Redman, in the difficult turbo-Porsche, came out to challenge the two Shadowmen, Follmer and Oliver, who proceeded to beat each other nearly to death.

5. Because he hated to give up, any race with Jackie Stewart in it. Not enough, unfortunately. PL

Wild Things – The unrestricted Technology of Can-Am

You know how F1 today likes to present itself as the loftiest summit of motorsports technology. Well, not one of its modern micro-engines would have been countenanced in the old Can-Am. They’re all too small…

In an age when racing is all about rules, it may be hard to imagine cars without any. But we once had such dream machines. And one of the very few technical restrictions was a minimum: engines had to displace more than 2500cc.

No, Can-Am wasn’t totally free of limitations. The cars came under FIA Group 7, and there were certain requirements. But not many, especially early on. As long as you built a two-seater with bodywork covering the wheels, and screwed in some safety (as then understood), you were pretty much done with the rulebook. There was never a ceiling on the displacement, design or operation of your engine (except that gas turbines were not wanted). In fact, there was nothing to stop you installing a second engine, or more. No minimum weight or maximum fuel load. Nobody told you what materials to use or which wheels to drive. Tyres were not governed, nor boost when turbos appeared – Can-Am helped perfect turbocharging for road racing.

Aerodynamic restrictions? Well, that did become a sore subject. But in the pure, early years, 1966-69, people were free to shape and size their cars any crazy way they pleased.

And plenty did. Criss-crossing the North American continent in those happy days, as I used to do for Autosport, was exciting: the Chaparral with the world’s first suspension-mounted wing, the angle of which was under the driver’s control. Or the first Shadow with its tiny tyres, which really was fast on the straights. The Chaparral 2J had a second engine driving fans to make ground-effect suction, a principle so effective it promptly got banned. Another innovator produced a car with four engines.

Can-Am gave us the biggest Ferrari V12 ever, and the flat-12 Porsche with twin turbos, the mightiest powerplant sportscar racing had ever seen. Cars with chassis made out of titanium, others of magnesium alloy, one entirely of glassfibre (another Chaparral). Cars manufactured by some of the world’s premier marques; others crafted literally in home driveways by inventive souls who deserved to become famous, but never did.

It is true that the most successful Can-Am cars – the line of McLarens which owned the series for five years straight, 1967 to 1971 – were relatively conventional. But even these were beautiful in their conservatism, soundly designed, finely crafted and, most importantly, thoroughly sorted. Their enormous alloy-block Chevy engines would literally shake the earth.

And it is a fact that nearly everywhere they both ran, Can-Am cars were faster than F1s of their day. Full stop. PL

Top five cars

1. Chaparral 2E. The first of the winged Road Runners from 1966, the only Chaparral to win a Can-Am, best illustrated the original meaning of the ‘unlimited’ series.

2. McLaren M8B. Almost any of Bruce’s soundly designed, built and driven cars would qualify, but this is the one model that was never defeated, winning all 11 races 1969.

3. Porsche 917/30. Often called “the car that killed Can-Am”, this 1973 championship winner packed as much as 1500hp.

4. Lola T70. The car to have at the series’ outset, it was fast, handled well for its day and won five of the six 1966 races. Oh, and it’s still gorgeous.

5. Hmm...chewey cake. Shall I pick the Shadow DN4, sleek series winner in 1974? Bryant’s Titanium Car of 1970 that hustled the McLarens? No, wait, how about that fast and beautiful ’69 Ferrari 612P…? Hmm… PL

Can-Am rustlers

Ever since the original Can-Am was killed off prematurely, part-way through the 1974 season, there have been people trying to apply the old brand to lesser forms of racing car.

Lest I leave the wrong impression, I’m not saying anything against the ‘single-seat’ series that started up in 1977. It was good, fierce racing with great driving, and I’d have enjoyed and approved of it had it been christened anything but ‘Can-Am’. A more accurate description of those vehicles came from series driver Alan Jones: “Formula 5000s with overcoats.”

For one whose foundation image of motor racing had been formed and fixed forever by the wild and free original Can-Am, these design-restricted, displacement-limited artifices were imposters, plain and simple.

After that series ended in the early ’80s, custodians of the bedraggled brand applied it to a yet lesser kind of car, one limited to just two litres. Again it was good racing, or so I’m told. I could never bring myself to watch.

Then there was the sad attempt to construct a ‘Can-Am’ series for club racers: cheap V6s, half-naked bodywork. Ugh.

I’ve heard some talk of building new sports-racing cars in the old style, outwardly similar to the Chaparrals, Lolas and McLarens of the late 1960s, but incorporating modern, high-strength materials and safety knowhow. Big, loud engine; big, slidey tyres; severely restricted downforce… That’s better. PL

Top five drivers

1. The Bear. Indisputable master of Can-Am, Denny Hulme won nearly 40 per cent of his races as well as two titles.

2. Bruce McLaren. A solid engineer as well as a two-time driving champion, and a nice guy to boot, his cars stamped his personality into the series.

3. Jim Hall. Innovative in the shop, tireless on the test track and superb in his Chaparral’s cockpit, he could have/should have won often.

4. Mark Donohue. Porsche could not have done it without him.

5. It has to lie between John Surtees and Dan Gurney – and Peter Revson and George Follmer, and Jackie Stewart and… PL